Editor’s note: In parts I and II, the reporter and editor walked through Woodstock’s main hamlet and counted nearly 50 establishments where one could get a drink and/or something to eat, almost one third of the businesses. This week, we seek answers as to whether that density is sustainable.
Opinions vary as to the reasoning behind Woodstock’s burgeoning restaurant scene, as well as whether there actually are more eateries and drinking establishments now than before. The only sure thing was that others want to try what Woodstock Times editor Brian Hollander and I did a few weeks back, and walk across town checking things out for themselves.
Those looking to book short term rentals from the 300 plus offerings listed on Airbnb at any time can do so virtually now, to an extent. Local hosts have started utilizing a new website/app feature that allows them to list favorite eateries, nightspots and stores on a local map, or in other elements of the San Francisco-based company’s new “Guidebook” features, previously utilized for major destination cities since being launched last summer, but now eyeing smaller go-to spots like Woodstock.
“We’re seeing the same thing in Uptown Kingston, with the numbers of restaurants and boutique drinking establishments all doing well,” said Ulster County Planning Department Director Dennis Doyle of the growing numbers of non-retail places we’d charted in our walks, where the numbers showed almost one of three establishments catering to digestion in one way or another. “I think you can attribute that to the increase in tourism, with turnover taking different forms, including hotels as well as Airbnb rentals.”
Woodstock Chamber of Art & Commerce president Randy Conti, busy prepping the opening of the latest Woodstock Playhouse season this week, added that the growing number of restaurants demonstrated, to he and others at the chamber, “how Woodstock is becoming more of a destination now, which means we need more restaurants, more nightlife in the form of music and the like, and more accommodations. People want things to do for a full weekend, or even for a week’s vacation here.”
Woodstock planning board chairman John Lavalle, a former town supervisor and current realtor, fine-tuned what others were saying, with a bit of counter-spin, by stressing the “ebb and flow” he’s seen in Woodstock over his lifetime here.
“We’ve certainly had more food and drinking places at other times in the past,” he recalled. “We’re just seeing another peak. We’ve been a destination town for as long as I can remember.”
“I don’t know if the number of establishments is anything more or less, and I’ve been here 25 years,” said town supervisor Bill McKenna. “I guess it has to do with the fact that you can’t get tofu salad or a good shot on Amazon yet. I’ve read somewhere that years ago downtowns were considered dead when the malls came in. Now the malls are going out of fashion and there’s a resurgence in downtowns. Whether this plays out over the next few years is anyone’s guess.”
“The flight to the suburbs has become a desire to be in the confines of an urbanized era,” added Doyle, noting how new restaurants and drinking sports are getting centralized again, after years when they tended to get opened in more rural locations around the area. “Obviously the economy has improved. We have an aging population that likes to eat and not mow lawns. But we also get a lot of active tourists here who like nothing better than to sit down to a few drinks and a good dinner after a day of hiking or biking.”
McKenna added how lively all the new eating and drinking had made the town’s hamlet. But also raised new issues.
This past Spring saw the release of a flurry of national news stories announcing the death or retail. Simultaneously, the restaurant trade extolled news that its revenues had surpassed those of grocery stores for the first time.
Woodstock proper lost its main supermarkets years ago, but its nearest shopping source in West Hurley is about to become a Hannafords’, while its natural foods and smaller, mom-and pop establishments appear to be thriving and growing.
Much has been made of online shopping, but that’s not hurt Woodstock retail. The overbuilding of malls — a phenomenon that saw America end up with 14 times its nearest competition in Canada, and nearly 25 times any European nation — resulted in a drop of mall use by 50 percent during the recent recession. But again, that’s not a local thing.
The trend that does affect us is the new popularity of restaurants and bars these days.
“Many young people are driven by the experiences that will make the best social media content — whether it’s a conventional beach pic or a well-lit plate of glistening avocado toast,” wrote Derek Thompson in article in The Atlantic published this past April. “Laugh if you want, but these sorts of questions — ‘what experience will reliably deliver the most popular Instagram post?’ — really drive the behavior of people ages 13 and up.”
Michael Corkery, writing in The New York Times about retail’s “tipping point” a week later, further noted how more workers were losing jobs from retail stores than the various industries mentioned during last year’s elections, and suggested that “a permanent restructuring is underway, rather than a dip in the normal business cycle.”
Both stories came out following the release of a scintillatingly-titled report, “The Successful Integration of Food & Beverage Within Retail Real Estate,” from the International Council of Shopping Centers that went a step further, suggesting that shopping malls and downtowns needed more restaurants to draw shoppers, since that’s the experience people now wanted when they went out to spend money.
A report from Airbnb released last October as it was facing regulations in several cities, including its hometown of San Francisco, similarly stressed the rise of the restaurant business as vital to its business, but also affected by it to the tune of billions of dollars each year.
“When our guests visit stores and restaurants in the neighborhoods that haven’t benefitted from tourism in the past, they generate economic activity for local businesses and support local jobs. No businesses benefit more than restaurants,” Airbnb’s researchers wrote of their company, a major force in Woodstock over recent years. “Airbnb guests spend the greatest portion of their money while traveling on restaurants and dining out, compared to other expenses like shopping, transportation and leisure, according to our latest annual survey. The report finds that Airbnb guests reported spending on average between $50 and $90 per guest per night in restaurants.”
Continuing, the report noted that 56 percent of their guests said they were spending on food and shopping, and that they were setting up their new Guidebook website and app features because, “our hosts continue to promote the one-of-a-kind, authentic experiences only residents can know, helping guests discover local restaurants, bars, bakeries and cafes in cities around the world…To date, about 200,000 small businesses and local attractions appear in these city guidebooks, including over 90,000 restaurants.”
And that was last autumn…and not counting the guides provided online by the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor and countless newer phenomena.
Doyle, speaking from his county planning offices in Kingston, said that as far as he was concerned, new restaurants and boutique bars didn’t come with new problems. He said the food and drink business, by and large, utilizes the same relative amount of parking that retail does. His department works closely with the county Health Department regarding any food issues. The big item, overall, had to do with water and sewer capacity. But that, Doyle added, many be one of the reasons such establishments are concentrating where such services exist, like Woodstock’s hamlet.
Asked whether local retail felt any competition from the new spurt of eateries, the way some did when realtor offices and banks seemed to be taking up all the unused space in town, Rebecca Turmo of Jean Turmo spoke about how good it was to have more options in town, while also making sure to praise all that was here already, food- and drink-wise.
“It’s all good. It shows movement in the community,” she said. “I remember back when they opened the Hudson Valley mall and a lot of people were saying that small businesses would die. They said the same with the arrival of the internet, but I still believe human beings are social creatures that want to touch things, to feel things. We worried a lot after the markets collapsed but everyone in town toughed it out and our customers were faithful. There’s a certain amount of camaraderie among all Woodstock business owners.”
While noting the dangers of a political malaise spreading from our nation’s capital, Turmo added that all said, her main other worry had to do with what a “tough business” restaurants can be.
Doyle echoed that statement, noting that “restaurants don’t have a great success rate, less than half survive.” But, like everyone we spoke to, he added how much he wished everyone well.
“From all I see retail stores are doing fine here; it’s not like restaurants are replacing them,” added Conti, speaking for the Chamber. “The new ones have been moving into places that were empty, or once restaurants.”
Lavalle, meanwhile, pointed out what he was seeing from a local planning level. A lack of parking.
“Somebody in power is going to have to make a serious series of decisions to maximize and add to our existing parking lots,” he said. “It’s getting worse and not better. We will have to look for extra land. A number of us are working on ideas including a shuttle bus on weekends.”
Supervisor Bill McKenna also said parking was the key issue he saw for the town and its new eating and drinking establishments, its surging tourism. He, like his planning board chairman, described what existed now as “willy nilly.” He said there was talk about paving the Mountain View lot off Rock City Road so lines could be designated, which would likely result in fitting as many as 28 more cars in at a time. Doubling the size of the lot at the bottom of the Comeau Property was also being looked into, as well as several other ideas on the eastern side of town, nearer to the Gateway District.
“I’ve had a couple of talks with the building inspector and members of the planning board,” McKenna added, while also noting that, “I have yet to propose any of this to the board.”
As for health and any other issues regarding new restaurants and other business, he’d been assured by the town’s water and sewer department, as well as building inspector/code enforcement officer Ellen Casciaro that, “Everything seems to be fine. No issues.”
“Managing what we have is certainly a task,” added Lavalle. “But we have a building department that, I think, may need some help with this latest surge. Right now Ellen’s doing three jobs as building inspector, ZEO and in charge of wetlands. I’d suggest we also look into separating those departments.”
Especially when you consider that that story about retail and restaurants in The Atlantic pegged autonomous cars and active, non-parking delivery and pick-up schedules as the next frontier for all of us, including restaurants.
Next week, more on parking.